Somewhere in the annals of this blog I’m sure I’ve posted on the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I feel quite certain that most people who know me have heard me yammer on about that, and yet a plethora of Christians and even non-Christians shame and judge fellow humans for their perception on how so-and-so is handling his or her relationships as if they have a right to do that. So, I’m going to discuss this topic again because it really can’t be talked about enough. And I’m going to get down and dirty with the Greek this time. That’s right. We’re breakin’ out the koine.
Before I start parsing, let’s just suppose something. Suppose my daughters were all murdered by a serial killer. That’s a horrible supposition, but, for the sake of the discussion, it’s relevant albeit horrifying. Suppose said psychopath is captured, tried, and found guilty. Let’s suppose some more. What if I were to live in a state where capital punishment were legal? Mr. Spree Killer was gettin’ a lethal injection, and I was invited to a front row viewing along with all the other families who lost loved ones at this murderer’s hands.
As a theist, am I obligated to forgive this guy? He killed my daughters.
Let’s define forgiveness. There are three definitions for ‘forgive’. Two have to do with our emotions:
The third definition refers to a transaction:
I don’t care how the dictionary defines forgiveness. In the context of this discussion, I want to know what forgiveness means in the biblical context. What does it really mean? This matters because so many people are bludgeoned emotionally by others for not being forgiving enough, and, when asked what they mean, they don’t really define themselves very well. So, let’s do it! Let’s define the terms.
Two Greek words are used to delineate ‘forgiveness’ in every verse discussing forgiveness in the New Testament. Those Greek words are ἀφίημι (aphiémi) meaning ‘I send away, release, remit, forgive, permit’ or ἀπολύω (apoluó) meaning ‘I release, let go, send away, divorce’. The pertinent meaning used depends upon the context. Note, however, that these words contain legal meanings. In terms of forgiveness, these words treat sin as debts. To forgive, in the biblical sense, is to release someone else from a debt owed. There is nothing within either of these words that pertains to emotions. It’s strictly legal. It is a transaction. That’s it.
So, that very awkward question should be answered then, right? Am I obligated to forgive someone who violates me even if it is technically unforgivable? Well, let’s talk about that. What makes something unforgivable? If we are speaking in terms of transactions, I would think that an unforgivable action might be something that is irreparable. Something so wrong or heinous that no matter what that person tries to do in their lifetime, they can never pay you back. They are truly indebted to you because they can never, ever, ever restore to you what they stole. So, what’s the point in demanding that they pay you back if they can’t? Could a serial killer ever restore to me my daughters if he murdered them? Well, obviously, no! Why would I want to hold onto him then? Why would I want anything to do with him? Of course, I would just say, “You can’t pay me back. In fact, you owe me nothing. Go the way laid before you now and get as far away from me as possible.” This is a cold-blooded act of the will. This kind of forgiveness is not motivated by mercy, kindness, love, or goodness. It’s merely an act done to free oneself from evil deeds perpetrated by another, and the world is full of evil deeds.
Incest, sexual abuse in all its forms, trauma, verbal and emotional abuse, spousal abuse of all kinds, living with domestic violence and substance abuse, spiritual abuse…the list goes on and on. We don’t enter into the forgiveness transaction because it feels good. We do it for our own peace of mind, to cut ties with acts of violence done to us, and to change our focus. Emotional healing comes later. Sometimes years later. No one has the right to judge that.
Forgiveness, however, has never meant that a relationship has been restored. It simply means that the debtor has been released from debts owed. That’s it. In the biblical sense, it doesn’t mean that the one granting forgiveness has ceased to feel resentment. It doesn’t mean that the one releasing the debtor isn’t still hurting tremendously. It doesn’t mean that trust is restored. It just means that what the debtor owed the person whom they hurt has been cancelled.
Many Christians seem to confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. They are in no way the same thing. I can forgive someone for hurting me, but I am allowed to choose not to be in a relationship with that person. Why? Because relationships are founded upon trust. Without trust, it is impossible to have a truly sound and rewarding relationship. Both people in a relationship must trust each other. If one person has a history of violating the other, then there will be a power differential in that relationship that will erode trust. Forgiveness is possible, but true reconciliation may not be.
The Bible discusses reconciliation in the New Testament. One of the words used is καταλλαγή (katallagé) meaning ‘restoration to favor’. This sort of reconciliation is talking about humanity’s restoration to divine favor because of the expiatory death of Jesus. It’s an exchange of one position for another. Another word used for reconciliation in the New Testament is ἀποκαταλλάσσω (apokatallassó) meaning ‘change from one state of feeling to another’. There is a sense in this word that the act of reconciliation is bringing something back to a former state of harmony. Then there is καταλλάσσω (katallassó) which means ‘decisively change, as when two parties reconcile when coming (“changing”) to the same position’. This term was originally used by money-changers when exchanging coins but also implies changing from enmity to friendship. It’s clear that the term ‘reconciliation’ can communicate different things to us. It’s also clear that it doesn’t mean forgiveness.
Why am I discussing this again? Choosing friendship over enmity is easy if there are small offenses. It’s not that hard to forgive minor things. That’s life after all. People will offend us, and we will offend others. It’s only right and virtuous to forgive.
Real abuse though? Families that perpetuate true damage? Incest? Violence? Alcoholism? Domestic violence? Untreated mental illness that parentifies children? Sometimes the only thing an adult child of these abusive families can do is leave and never look back. Forgive? Yes, eventually. Reconcile? Never. That would be tantamount to suicide. Some families hide their abuse with great skill.
I grew up in a nice, religious family. We went to church every Sunday. We went to Sunday brunch at the country club. My stepsisters and I were confirmed and wore our cross necklaces with pride. My stepfather played golf with his buddies. My mother quilted. My father and his wife taught Sunday school and were visible at every church gathering. One of my family members is a celebrated Christian author. On the surface, we were all smiling and happy. Never be surprised by what happens behind closed doors. Do you suppose anyone knew that my smiling mother had Borderline Personality Disorder and was terrorizing the family? Do you suppose anyone knew that I lived with a pedophile who was really a sexual sadist? Did anyone suspect that my stepsisters were being beaten? Do you suppose people guessed that my mother kept a bottle of narcotics and a revolver in her closet?
Families have their secrets. Human beings are capable of wondrous things, and they are also capable of horrors that surpass anything we might imagine. Never underestimate someone else’s suffering. If you meet another person who is not in contact with their family, don’t preach forgiveness. Don’t ‘should’ on them, tell them what you think they need to do, and then cloak it in some treacly Christianese platitude. It is unbelievably hard to walk away from your family–even if they’ve abused you. It goes against every instinct a human being has. So, the next time you meet a person who has made the choice to make their journey without their family, please be kind to them. Withhold your judgment. Don’t tell them to forgive. They already know that. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s very hard to forgive a parent for sexual abuse. It’s hard to forgive a parent for destroying a family. It’s not impossible, but it’s…hard. Survivors of familial abuse need love, support, and hope. They don’t need judgment simply because the landscape of their life looks different from yours. It is always a temptation to judge others whom you perceived to have “sinned” differently than you, but it is still wrong.
Lastly, learn the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a process. It’s possible. Sometimes reconciliation is not. Why? Because oftentimes the very people with whom everyone keeps telling us to reconcile are the ones that are the most dangerous–our family members. To many, it is shocking and impossible, and it should be. Family should never abuse family, but it happens more often than you might guess. If you cannot in any way relate to my story or the stories of others who grew up in abusive families, then you are blessed extravagantly. Don’t hold someone else’s life experiences against them particularly if they were made victims by the very people who were called to nurture and love them. Don’t hold these things against them because their life makes you uncomfortable. We were never called to be comfortable. We were called to be comforters.
Would you invite the serial killer that you just forgave to your house for Thanksgiving dinner?
No? Well, there are a lot of people who grew up with emotional serial killers, and they would like to live a good life and learn to pursue happiness, too. Forgiveness? Sure. Reconciliation? Probably not.
And that’s completely acceptable and good. This is why the ministry of reconciliation belongs to the Holy Spirit, and He bestows it upon people. Not all of us will reconcile with our abusers. Not all of us were ever meant to. Our journey in life has been about surviving our abusers, climbing out of the abyss, and realizing that life can be richly rewarding and good. Even if we have to build a family from scratch.
There is room for all of us in the House of God–all of us.
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.
‘But how?’ we ask.
Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
― Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out